When offered to buy a popular fish shop in northern Norway, Asif thought it was a joke. “I knew nothing about fish!” he laughs. “Now I’m the owner of Fiskebua and all my friends find it amusing that a refugee from Afghanistan has become a fish expert.” His road to success has not been easy, but Asif says that Norway is a good place for refugees willing to learn the language and work hard.
Before escaping the war in Afghanistan, Asif had never seen the ocean. He travelled long distances by land through Iran and Turkey before crossing a sea mass for the first time when taking a boat from Turkey to Greece.
When he first arrived in Norway in 2004, Asif lived in an asylum center for five years where he studied Norwegian and waited for his asylum application to be processed. He says it was a difficult time in his life as he was eager to get out and start working, earn a living and bring his wife to Norway.
In 2007, Asif moved to Mo i Rana, a small town far up north in Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle, where he was finally granted asylum. His first job was at the local grocery store.
“When I started working, my employer said he couldn’t offer me more than part time work – but soon after he was giving me many more hours, and I was very happy with it. “I wanted to work a lot so I could save enough money – I wanted to buy a house and help my wife from Afghanistan join me in Norway.” Asif remembers. “I was not afraid to work long hours and the customers liked me.”
Merete Torsteinsen, the principal at the Mo i Rana adult education center has worked with refugees for years. The region struggles with finding people who want to live and work there, so the municipality made a survey asking refugees what they would want in order to stay in town. “The survey found three main things that people feel that they need in order to settle down. It was – very unsurprisingly – the opportunity to work, the opportunity to buy a home, and access to good kindergartens and schools for the children.” Merete says. “It’s so easy forget that these people are just like us, but I think you could do the same survey with almost any family in the world and get the same answers.”
After working at the local grocery store for six years, Asif had gotten to know the customers and the Mo i Rana locals very well and he finally felt happy. In 2011, he had bought a house in Mo i Rana and managed to bring his wife Freshta to safety from Afghanistan through the family reunification program.
One day, Rolf Skjærvold, the owner of Fiskebua, the renowned fish shop next door, approached Asif and asked whether he would be interested in taking over his fish business. Rolf and his co-owner Inger-Lise Kristiansen had decided that after working so hard for many years in the shop they slowly wanted to start retiring.
“At first, I thought he was joking – I knew nothing about fish!” Asif says laughing. “But then he explained that he believes that I would be a good fit for the shop, so my wife and I decided that we would give it a try and buy it together.”
Several bidders had already approached Rolf and Inger-Lise with offers to buy the fish shop, however, none had felt quite right to them. None, until Asif came along.
“Owning a fish shop is hard work that requires a special kind of dedication, and Asif has it. He is a fast learner, a kind person and very good at customer service. Working with him has really been a pleasure.” Inger-Lise Kristiansen says.
Today, the Fiskebua fish shop is thriving. With Asif and Freshta behind the counter, supported by the former owners who have taught them all they know about fish and managing a business in Norway, the sales have gone up and the local customers are happier than ever.
Solbjorg Ulriksen, is an elderly lady who has lived in Mo i Rana her entire life and has been a regular customer at Fiskebua for years. “When we want to buy fish – we come here,” she says. “Asif is always kind to us – and he is very knowledgeable about fish. The fact that he is from Afghanistan makes it even more special – he has learnt so much!”
Since arriving to Norway as a refugee from war-torn Afghanistan 14 years ago, Asif has become a successful business owner, fish expert, and well respected and much-appreciated member of the Mo i Rana community. He is also a great inspiration to other refugees hoping to make it in Norway.
“Norway is a country that is very kind to refugees,” Asif says. “For those eager to make it, I have three things that I would like to recommend: learning the language as fast as possible and not being afraid to use it, working hard when given a job, and building a network of good Norwegian friends. These are important keys if we want to make it here,” he says.